Photography and Civic Engagement

Imaging as Activism

BY Lucy R. Lippard

Photo of Lucy R. Lippard

Lucy R. Lippard is a writer, activist, sometime curator, and author of 25 books on contemporary art and cultural criticism, including Stuff: Instead of a Memoir, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, Eva Hesse, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, and most recently, Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, and Pueblo Chico: Land and Lives in Galisteo Since 1814. She has co-founded various artists’, feminist, and activist organizations and publications. She lives off the grid in rural Galisteo, New Mexico, where for 23 years, she has edited the monthly community newsletter: El Puente de Galisteo.


In an era where the lens is mightier than the sword, activist photography emerges as a profound means of inciting societal transformation... In this light, activist photographers are akin to modern-day revolutionaries, wielding their cameras as instruments of social awakening.” 1

All the world’s an image, especially ever since photography became widely accessible, and then even more so since cell phones, the internet, digitization, and manipulations, which have made it possible for photographers to lie (or fictionalize) more easily. Yet photography continues to be believed more than “made up” visual art, despite the fact that it can no longer be confidently associated with recorded truth. One timely example: When Israeli leader Yitzak Rabin was assassinated as he left a peace rally in 1995, photography was an accessory to the crime. The Zionist right wing under Benjamin Netanyahu had long been plastering thousands of altered posters of Rabin in a traditional Palestinian keffiyah all over Israel. Photography plays a more instructional and revelatory role with images by Palestinian photographer Yasser Nassim emerging from occupied Gaza, where maimed and wounded patriots have for decades employed slingshots against Israeli snipers, tanks, and bombs. And of course personal cell-phone videos have proved even more powerful weapons against police violence and other criminal cases.

Protesters carry posters depicting the eyes of Eric Garner, created by the artist JR for the Millions March in New York City, December 13, 2014. © The All-Nite Images / Creative Commons

I define activism as actions and images hoping to change something.2 Photojournalists image events, actions, and crises for future dissemination, directly informing the public. It’s about taking risks and acting on beliefs and ethical imperatives as well as looking, thinking, supporting, and learning. Activist photography comes in many different flavors, some of which are called art. One iconic example is artist JR’s Eric Garner’s Eyes, his gaze amplified in huge images leading the Millions March NYC protest in 2014. On the Navajo Nation, Jetsonorama (Chip Thomas) an African American physician and artist, has worked in unexpected rural sites for decades. JR’s huge toddler peering over the U.S.-Mexico border wall is another impressive example.

A mural from “The Painted Desert Project,” a public art initiative on the Navajo Nation organized by activist and resident Jetsonarama [Chip Thomas]. © Chip Thomas

Photographic time is expansive and deracinating, existing in the moment it was taken and then in the moments it’s perused. Different types or origins of images move different people, even different social sectors, at different times. Not to mention those deliberately employed and distorted for disinformation. And one has to wonder if a population addicted to social media can still tell the difference.

“Different types or origins of images move different people, even different social sectors, at different times.”

Activist photography, unlike other types of activist art, usually requires presence, as in Susan Meiselas’s daring and brilliant work in Central America during the US-backed wars of the 1980s. Spontaneity, a fast take, or the “decisive moment,” is particularly important when documenting actions. Run-of-the-mill demonstration photos are useful as records and inspirations. If we’re on the same side, they give us a boost. They can also make us feel as though we were there, or we don’t have to be there, or just plain guilty that we weren’t there. But most of these images are reportorial, interchangeable as images no matter how uplifting they may be to partisans. Rare demo images, like Mykle Parker’s feminist pro-abortion Rage 4 Rights series, are striking as well as informative, transcending the cliches while still offering us \models for ongoing public expressions of love and anger. While most activist art is grounded in community and camaraderie and often plays out in direct confrontation or public arts, photographers are better seen as collaborators or allies.3 Like “fine” art, such works can overtake and expand far beyond the original context. The stronger the image the more effective the potential for organizing activism.

“The stronger the image the more effective the potential for organizing activism.”

In 1981, I was among a group of New York art activists who founded PAD/D, Political Art Documentation/Distribution, with this mission statement: “Our goal is to provide artists with an organized relationship to society, to demonstrate the political effectiveness of image making, and to provide a framework within which progressive artists can discuss and develop alternatives to the mainstream art system.” Distribution is key. Take the My Lai massacre. The 1968 image of women and children murdered by U.S. forces on a road in a Vietnamese village, taken by Army photographer Ronald Haeberle, was amplified by the Art Workers Coalition’s poster “And Babies? And Babies.” We printed 50,000 of these posters, handed them out to artists all over the world in a DIY person-to-person distribution strategy. And we marched in Washington with photo masks of Lieutenant Calley, who gave the orders.4

The other iconic photo from the antiwar period is Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s image of Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old girl running naked in agony after being burned with Napalm. The photographer took her and other wounded children to the hospital and became Kim Phuc’s lifelong friend and ally. Even images of wounded and dying American soldiers took a back seat to these two terrifying images.5 Susan Sontag suggested that depictions of suffering anesthetize, but later wrote that they could provoke thought. I’d add action.

Art Workers' Coalition, “Q. And babies? A. And babies.” 1970. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Jon Hendricks, 2017.10, © 1970 Irving Petlin, Jon Hendricks, and Frazer Dougherty

When children are the victims, as they have been for decades in Israel’s constant attacks on Gaza, as well as when Palestinians retaliate, it is hard to believe that viewers are not moved to action. When twenty first-graders were shot down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, I thought the outrage would finally result in stricter gun laws. Wrong. These ghastly events continue. Would public opinion have been different if iconic photographs of the tragedies had emerged?

“After Lenny Pozner’s six-year-old son Noah died at Sandy Hook, he briefly contemplated showing the world the damage an AR-15-style rifle did to his child. His first thought: ‘It would move some people, change some minds.’ His second: ‘Not my kid…’”6 However, before the funeral, Noah’s parents held a private open-coffin viewing, perhaps inspired by Emmet Till’s open coffin decades before, when his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, had the courage to say, “ok, my kid,” and made history, triggering the Civil Rights movement. Such images are challenging calls for photo editors and critics. The media apparently didn’t hesitate in Till’s case, and it made an enormous difference, thanks to parental (and publishers’) courage. But was a deciding factor the fact that the child was Black? 

Photographs of people or communities of color are increasingly tricky to navigate for outsiders. Images of community are often confused with images by community, and we don’t always know which is which. Does it make a difference? In many cases, yes. As the “blind” juror for a recent grant, I was attracted to some images of communities of color that turned out to be by White women. That doesn’t make them worse or better photographs, but these days every word and every picture are fraught with ideology. 

Protesters gather at Windward and Boardwalk with Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights to march in Venice, CA on July 4, 2022, from the CENTER Award-winning series Rage 4 Rights © Mykle Parker

At the same time, we must ask ourselves why we even print or show the infuriating racism of photographs picturing the enslaved and lynching victims. Should they all be burned in aid of cultural sensitivity? No. They are history lessons in humanity, or lack thereof. If the extreme Right would like to erase these histories to make White children, and adults, simultaneously ignorant and superior, the Left too can sometimes wallow in misfortune in order to demonstrate the victory of courage against the odds. (And I guess I’m doing that here…) 

History counts. One culture war that is not over yet involves images of Native Americans. Most of the Native Pueblos here in New Mexico do not allow photographs taken of their villages or their ceremonial dances because they have been wounded by images for centuries. It is also about respect. For this and other complex reasons, Native artists tend to focus on the entangled issues of identity, daily life, persistent belief systems, and the effects of colonialism. Their work can be subtle, deadpan humorous, critically nuanced. It is often addressed primarily to their own communities. Imagery of Native peoples going about life and ritual is proof that they never vanished. 

“At the same time, we must ask ourselves why we even print or show the infuriating racism of photographs picturing the enslaved and lynching victims.”

Photomontage, in aid of satire rather than disinformation, has a long history of political use, notably with John Heartfield’s anti-fascist images in the 1920s and ‘30s. One of my favorite examples is Janet Koenig’s 1980s montage of the Teddy Roosevelt monument outside the American Museum of Natural History, which has since been removed after years of protest. The actual monument was a giant equestrian statue of Roosevelt, flanked by much smaller me, one Native American and one African American. In Koenig’s version, these sidekicks have “grown up” to heights as impressive as that of the central White “hero.”

Then finally there’s the climate crisis, a feast for ecological photographers working with conservation, landscape, and politics. But it too presents challenges almost as grand as the issue itself. The incremental speed of the crisis offers less drama visible on the land than in its destruction of human lives and structures. No single image can encompass all of its terrors, though I’m partial to Nickolay Lamm’s image of Mar a Lago under water at extreme sea level rise. 

A depiction of Mar-a-Lago with a rise in sea level of 10 feet. © Nickolay Lamm

We have now been exposed to a great many stunning images of hurricane damaged cities, melting glaciers, starving polar bears. It’s coming closer, but many of us live nowhere near these events. Distance -- physical, intellectual, and emotional -- is a problem in communicating the climate crisis. If the images aren’t striking, they won’t attract attention. But if they are too beautiful, esthetics overwhelms the underlying brutality.

I went online and looked at endless compilations and found some powerful photographs suggesting climate change, but little that might change or open a closed mind to action. Would that change if the pictures were of the viewer’s home? New Mexico, where I live, is an arid state. We’re used to brown hills. Since 2022 and the immense Forest Service-caused Hermit Peak/Calf Canyon fires, we are getting used to black hills. Sharon Stewart lives in a Mora County valley where the proximity of these and the consequent floods on the burn scars were disastrous for many tiny farming settlements. It’s a local photographer’s responsibility to record such events, as she has.

“I went online and looked at endless compilations and found some powerful photographs suggesting climate change, but little that might change or open a closed mind to action. Would that change if the pictures were of the viewer’s home?”

Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”7 Any guesses as to what that might be?

“FIRESCAPE VIII: Acequias Encinal and Cañoncito Flood-Damaged Headgates.” © 2023 Sharon Stewart

This essay is a drastically shortened version of the lecture Imaging as Activism given on November 16, 2023, for The Democratic Lens discussion series for CENTER in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

1 One of my grandsons suggested we check out AI on my subject for fun; I was amazed at the results. This kicker was the beginning of an essay created in seconds. Kind of creepy.

2 Greg Sholette’s book The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art (London, Lund Humphries, 2922) is a great place to start.

3 The events need not be violent, as in community workshops like Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop, founded by photographer David Goldblatt in 1989, focusing on issues of memory and historical accuracy.

4 Our message was that we are all Calleys if we don’t stop this war, though some thought we were supporting the criminals who gave or obeyed the orders.

5 Just as I’d completed the lecture on which this essay is based, a friend sent me a New York Times article by Lydia Polgreen, centered on an image of dead children in Gaza, going over much of this same ground: “This Photo Demands an Answer,” The New York Times, November 13, 2023.

6 Elizabeth Williamson,From Sandy Hook to Uvalde, the Violent Images Never Seen,” The New York Times, May 30, 2022.

7 Buckminster Fuller, quoted in Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization : Humanity's Next Great Adventure, New York: Crown, 2000, 137.


• Lippard, Lucy R. Stuff: Instead of a Memoir. New Village Press. 2023

• Lippard, Lucy R. Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics and Art in the Changing West. The New Press. 2014

• Lippard, Lucy R. A Different War: Vietnam in Art. Norway, Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1990.

• Meiselas, Susan. Susan Meiselas: Nicaragua June 1978-July 1979. Aperture. 2016

• Sholette, The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art. New Directions. 2022

This essay was written by Lucy R. Lippard in February 2024.